Over at Cafe Hayek, there is a posting and comments concerning the impact of airbag regulations on driver/passenger safety... really part of a larger discussion about the role of the government. The argued position was that the Federal government acted too hastily in establishing regulations for airbags and then discovered later that smaller women and children could be injured or killed by the force of the airbag deployment.
Sam's point that a national safety requirement like air bags is particularly harmful when it turns out to produce unintended consequences (killing women and children, initially, because of the power of the airbags). If one state or one manufacturer had made air bags too powerful, we'd have learned from it and fixed it. But more people die when it's nationally mandated.Given the choice between deploying a technology that was very good, but not perfect and no use or significantly delayed use of that technology... I would argue that many more people were benefitted than harmed by requiring airbags than making them optional.
Why? Safety equipment is expensive and if a manufacturer tried to take on the marketplace alone by installing seatbelts and airbags and safety-related sensors in its vehicles while others did not, it would incur a significant market disadvantage... perhaps a few thousand dollars per vehicle... versus vehicles that did not have those features.
So what? Those who wanted those features could pay for them. True, but the likelihood that those systems would be installed in low-to-mid-priced vehicles would be much less than higher-priced vehicles. Why? Well, just look at the resistence to seatbelt laws. It took years to increase belt usage even when belt installation was required. What did it show? A large portion of the population a) doesn't understand risks, b) doesn't care about risks, c) isn't willing to pay for risk reduction... pick one. People had to be ticketed for not using seat belts before they were willing to do the logical or reasonable thing.
So, then, why should the govenment intrude on our individual choices with regulation? Simple: the marketplace is generally cost-driven. We have been educated to look for the lowest price, not necessarily understand the whole value proposition. And when it comes to safety or the environment, most individuals seem to use the reasoning that if I am responsible and others are not, then I'm not really accomplishing anything. Besides, "what could happen to me? I'm a good driver."
Sometimes the right thing to do is not necessarily the cheapest thing to do. And sometimes, the right thing to do needs a nudge from the government.
You don't believe that? Well, how many of you have or know of someone who has a circular saw without an electric brake? How many of you have or know of someone who has a table saw and who doesn't use the blade fence because it gets in their way?
A comment from a Cafe Hayek reader:
I would not dispute that seat belts make me safer, but I hate that I can be ticketed for not wearing one. I don't even mind paying for tha added safety, but whether or not I use it is MY business.Sure.... "Stupidity has its own rewards."
Sometimes... it makes sense to have regulations... to require improvements even when the cost per person is high and the risk per person is low.